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Wolves, Dogs, and Their Kin
Order Carnivora: Family Canidae
Mr. Peck, the yellow dog who shared my childhood, could not let prey pass. Almost any small animal that crossed his path was game: field mice, for which he would dig with ferocious energy, pausing to listen for them in their tunnels; porcupines, despite the beard of painful barbs they left him with; skunks, despite the sewer- and- cabbage smell; cats, even the ones we loved. One day, when our kitten was too slow, Mr. Peck left him dead beneath the Chinese elm he’d been racing for, his black coat littered with bits of leaf and twig. I recalled the rubbery scream I’d ignored hours earlier. I felt guilty for not seeing its importance at the time. Long days of misery followed before I could forgive Mr. Peck, days during which my mother told me again and again that he was following his nature, that he’d never learned not to hurt cats and couldn’t be blamed for this.
Rabbits tempted him above all. Their zigzag escape routes didn’t fool the yellow dog. He often brought one home and lay on the lawn, bracing it between his forepaws as he chewed. The largest jackrabbit I ever saw was his kill, a monster that might still, after two days of his gnawing, have been a red head of lettuce. My mother grimaced at this kill every time she passed him on the lawn.
“Pecky, I wish you’d take that elsewhere,” she said to him, but he merely turned his head to the side so the jagged carnassial teeth along his jaw could shear off a chunk of meat and bone.
Our dog’s carnivory was so much a part of my landscape that I hardly remarked it. I learned not to walk too close when he was on a kill, lest he growl to warn me off; otherwise, the bones and blood were routine. What made me notice them afresh was a new item on his menu. Strung through the buffalo grass of our backyard was a skeleton, dragged into disarticulation, the meat mostly gnawed off. The size of the thing startled me—bones strung out for a dozen feet, white in the sun except where they were filmed with red. At the end of the string Mr. Peck lay struggling with a femur. He put its bulbous end between his jaws and bit, but the thing went sliding out the side of his mouth with a clatter.
I found no skull, and had to ask my mother to identify the animal.
“A steer,” she said.
“Is Pecky supposed to kill the steers?” I said.
“He didn’t kill it. It was already dead when he found it.”
“What killed it?”
The next stage in my education about dog carnivory came with the visit of our neighbor’s dog, a broad- chested border collie. I enjoyed its presence at first, because it was always game for a chase. Border collies generally are: they must herd, and will try to guide and turn running geese or sheep or children—even, I have read, a string of ants. This border collie cavorted with my dogs and me, always pushing its side against me to keep me with the pack.
But then it began to kill our hens. We had six of them, five white leghorns and a slender auburn one. They died one at a time, and I would go out after school and track them by the feathers they lost as the border collie chased them.
“Shoot him if you have to,” our neighbor said. He was a kindly old man with great patience for children. “I got cattle, so I can learn him off of them, but I can’t learn him off of chickens.” It was a delicate point of etiquette, the shooting of someone else’s dog. Letting your dog roam free was a major attraction of country life; your dog’s freedom represented your own. But costing someone else his livelihood had consequences. I relayed the permission to my parents. They said we’d be moving soon, that we would have to get rid of the chickens anyway, so there was no need to hurt the dog.
One day I found my favorite hen, Fat Feet, near death. Her feet had always looked like the tubers of irises, extravagantly fleshy even for a white leghorn. I found her in the carport beside Dad’s shop. The border collie did not eat the chickens; he only chased them down to kill them. Fat Feet had hated being handled before, but now when I touched her she raised her head and looked at me and slowly put her head back down. She made low sounds, like the raw material for her normal clucks. I had a vague impression of blood among her white feathers. I told Mom—expecting, I guess, that she could do something to save Fat Feet. She told me to leave the bird alone and let her die.
I couldn’t. I went back again and again and stroked her feathers, and she raised her head more feebly each time, and the weird monotone she made grew softer as the afternoon went on. I said things to comfort her, though all promises at this point had to be empty.
Back in the yard I told the border collie to go away. He licked my hand. He was big enough to be an adult, but, as my neighbor had told me, he was still a puppy, and killing was his way of playing.
I went back to the carport and found Fat Feet dead. The next day I told my second- grade teacher about the episode. She asked why I hadn’t grabbed the hen up and put her in the freezer.
Peck and the border collie were good dogs, but imperfectly trained, each killing certain animals we humans would have preferred they didn’t touch. My mother taught me, in effect, that dogs hunt by instinct; my neighbor’s comment about training taught me that instinct can be shaped to suit our own needs. I didn’t really understand the border collie’s herding behavior, but that, too, is important: it’s an example of an instinct heightened and refined so that it lingers through generations, though it dissipates when we stop making dogs mate within their own breeds. In fact it is a modification of hunting behavior, the pursuit warped so that capture is less important than the chase itself.
In much of the world—the parts where people have extirpated the large native predators—the dog is the most dangerous large animal except for the human being. In the United States, for example, an estimated 4.7 million dog bites occur each year. These bites cause some 800,000 people per year to seek medical help, nearly half of them at emergency rooms. The U.S. government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is the source of these statistics, puts the annual death rate from dog attacks at about a dozen. Other Western countries have similar rates. In the UK, postal workers alone are attacked by dogs at a rate of nearly five thousand a year.
People view most of these incidents as something of a different order from, say, an attack by a crocodile or bear. It is this very difference in perception that allows dogs to be a danger. Because we perceive them as belonging among us, we are more vulnerable to them and more frequently hurt by them. Of course, this is only true in gross numbers. The average dog is unlikely to hurt a person, and most bites are minor events.
The most serious attacks tend to involve children (who comprise half the victims of medically significant bites) and old people. These victims are, of course, less able to defend themselves once an attack is launched, but that’s only part of the reason why they are disproportionately victimized. The main reason lies in the social structure of wolf packs.
The dog, despite the remarkable diversity of its body types, is simply a kind of wolf. Wolf packs are structured partly according to a dominance hierarchy, with stronger, more intimidating animals taking roles of privilege and leadership. These roles within a pack are always subject to revision. A low- ranking wolf can improve his standing by outfighting or cowing a higher- ranking one. In the right situation, a wolf will instinctively attack a pack mate of higher standing who looks weak, even if only momentarily. For example, if a wolf is injured in a hunt, he becomes a target of his social inferiors.
A domesticated dog seems to see itself as a low- ranking member of human society. Most dogs settle happily into their subordinate roles, once those roles are made clear to them. But this is not always the case. Sometimes dogs well past puppyhood try to rise socially by hurting children. I have known badly trained puppies to constantly rough up the youngest children in a house. The puppy is trying to improve his rank by establishing his dominance over the child. I’ve even known badly trained puppies to attack the adults in a household when they bend to pick something up. Bending over seems to the dog a sign of weakness or submission.
A setter I knew had lived amicably with my friends for years. One day he approached the four- year- old girl, who was just tall enough to look him in the eye. He opened his mouth and seized her face. Her father kicked the dog and pursued it into the woods. The girl was left with a scar on her lip. The family was broken up, the human members remaining, the setter exiled to live with other people. Traumatic as it was for all concerned, this scenario is commonplace. Fifty percent of dog bites to children are on the face. It is the eyes that provoke them; a direct gaze is a claim of social superiority, and the dog may challenge that claim from the weakest member of a human pack.
Old people are vulnerable when they appear infirm. An unsteady walk, for example, is a classic mark of weakness in wolf society; it will often draw a challenge. Possibly a quavering voice strikes a dog’s ear as a similar mark.
Some dogs are, of course, bred for attack. Just as the border collie I knew would try to herd children, running alongside us to control our paths, other dogs have a heightened desire for inflicting injury. This is simply a different part of the hunting protocol brought to the fore. We humans have kept attack dogs since prehistoric times. The benefit to the wolves was the opportunity of eating human refuse; the benefit to the humans was the wolves’ sensory adaptation to the dark. Wolves could hear or smell danger and give warning. They did this, of course, for their own benefit. But gradually the cultures of wolf and human integrated more fully, and the wolf began to serve not just as warning, but sometimes as actual guard, attacking other creatures that invaded a camp. Eventually dogs were bred specifically for this purpose, and they could be made to attack another creature solely for human benefit. For example, a dog does not gain by attacking a bear. Wolves generally do so only if their numbers are strong enough to give them a strong chance of victory. But dogs have been trained to attack bears in defense of humans, or even for human amusement.
Similarly, dogs can be bred to attack invading humans; and, by a very slight extension, they can be induced to selectively attack humans who are not invading. In medieval Europe, great mastiffs were used in combat. They could disembowel men or horses; they could run beneath the horses with vessels of fire strapped to their backs.
Dogs were invaluable tools of colonialism. Columbus used them as attack animals to help eradicate the Taino people of Hispaniola. In the United States, this colonial use of dogs continued. Histories are full of cases in which white settlers trained dogs to attack Native Americans or white Southerners trained dogs to attack African Americans. When race riots broke out in the 1960s, many white Americans acquired German shepherds. They’d seen police turning shepherds on black rioters.
Open warfare, conquest, riot control, racist oppression, and territorial defense do not exhaust the violent uses to which we humans have put dogs. There’s also torture. At Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, American interrogators threatened prisoners with attack dogs, the objectives including the amusement value of making prisoners soil themselves. Dogs were used as weapons of torture against political prisoners by a Uruguayan regime of the 1970s and by Robespierre’s revolutionary government.
It’s difficult to nail down the dangers of specific breeds. News reports often, and without sufficient evidence, blame the breeds considered dangerous at the time. Today, for example, pit bull terriers and rottweilers take the blame for attacks from all sorts of dogs. In the past, Doberman pinschers and German shepherds were similarly blamed. These breeds can be more aggressive than others, but the degree of this difference may have been exaggerated.
Larger breeds are generally more dangerous than smaller ones, even when we haven’t designed them for attack. Saint Bernards, which may weigh more than 200 pounds, have killed people. Dog breeders and owners have made various claims about the temperaments of different breeds. It is said with some evidence, for example, that chows begin life as suitable companions for children but sometimes turn mean in their old age—old age for a chow being about eight years. The very process of creating a pure strain involves inbreeding, which tends to create unforeseen behavioral anomalies such as inappropriate aggression.
Wolves eat a wide range of meat, from field mice to elk and moose. They succeed against larger, more powerful animals by teamwork. Typically, they separate a vulnerable member of a herd from the rest, then chase it in relays. Exhaustion helps bring the prey down; so does the traumatic injury of any bite the wolves can manage on the run. By making exhaustion part of the killing strategy, wolves avoid at least some of the kicks and gorings they might otherwise receive. They may finish the prey with a strangling bite to the throat. This strategy depends for its success on the fact that hoofed mammals typically don’t cooperate to save each other from predators. Each deer, for example, saves itself. There are some exceptions among the hoofed animals; bison defend their young against wolves by forming a circle, their horned heads outward. But a wolf pack’s success often depends on its superior teamwork.
The same factors are at play when wolves prey on humans. During the Black Death of the fourteenth century, wolves came out of the hills to feast on the bodies of the dead and the ill. The comrades who would normally protect these people were themselves disabled by the disease. Other disease outbreaks have provided similar opportunities for scavenging and mass predation on the weak or wounded, as have wars. This may be one way in which a population of wolves is educated to eat people. Famine offers the same opportunity. In northern China, famine killed 9 to 13 million people between 1876 and 1879. Wolves and dogs were minor contributors to this toll. Presumably they also scavenged among the abundant corpses. As is the case with many animals, wolves are not especially impressed by the distinction between preying on the weak and scavenging the dead. The custom among many human cultures of defending corpses against scavengers—by burying them, for example— probably has its roots in the need to keep predators from learning to take us as food.